I know you’ve heard of Hands on Nashville, but do you know the man behind its existence? Hal Cato is an entrepreneur, non-profit guru and devoted to making people’s lives better. We are lucky to have Hal Cato in Nashville as it wouldn’t be the same town without him.
Over 20 years ago, Hal started Hands on Nashville which began as a grassroots effort to make volunteering more accessible to Nashvillians. The Hands On Network is present in many cities across the United States with twelve locations abroad. Today, Hands on Nashville helps more than 700 organizations in Middle Tennessee find volunteers and is one of the largest volunteer resource centers in the world.
After being absorbed in Hands on Nashville for a decade, Hal went on to do extraordinary work at Bright Horizons and the Oasis Center. Now, he is on to his next venture! Find out how he started, where he’s been and what’s next for Hal below.
How long have you lived in Nashville? What brought you here?
I’ve lived here long enough to not remember living anywhere else. My family moved to Nashville when I was a young child. Apart from a few years in college and a couple of years in London, I’ve been here my entire life.
What did you do before starting Hands on Nashville? Tell us how you got into volunteering / non-profit work in Nashville?
I’ve always been attracted to anything that was about improving another person’s circumstances since I was a kid, and I was just a year or so out of college when I started Hands on Nashville. It’s roots were pretty simple: there was nothing out there that helped young people who worked full-time easily find ways to volunteer in their community (remember this was before cell phones or the internet). At the time, there were two options: join the Junior League (which was a little hard for a guy to do) or pump kegs at Junior Chamber of Commerce fundraisers. I had heard about a group called Hands on Atlanta that matched young, willing volunteers with evening and weekend community needs and I thought we needed one too.
How did you know at the beginning that the Hands on Nashville concept was strong enough to pursue? How long did it take for you to feel confident you had a sustainable business?
I’d seen how quickly Hands on Atlanta took off, so I knew the model would work if you had the right folks behind it. Although I was totally green, I knew that launching with the most diverse Board I could find was key so I spent months networking and finding co-founders. I found the “sweet 16” who made it happen, and we each brought our own network of relationships to the table. We volunteered together as a group for several months before we invited others in. Before we knew it, projects were filling up and our answering machine was full. At the time, we never thought about it as starting a sustainable business. We wanted to start a movement.
How long did you work at Hands on Nashville? Were you still working full-time job during the start-up phase? Are you still involved?
I had a full-time job already, but Hands on Nashville quickly turned into a second job. I never drew a paycheck from the organization and plowed most of what little disposable income I had at the time into buying copy paper and snacks. Our budget in year one was less than $5,000, and I raised almost all of it in $100 chunks from friends. I was heavily involved in HON for the first decade, but slowly backed off as others stepped up to the plate. I now serve on their Advisory Board.
What can we expect from Hands on Nashville in the next year? What’s the best way for people to get involved if they have never volunteered with Hands on Nashville?
There are more than 250 Hands on affiliates around the country, but Nashville’s is at the top of the pack. Brian Williams and his staff have such a big vision and they are wildly creative. That’s a potent combination! I’m particularly excited about their urban farming venture. What is beautiful about Hands on Nashville is that it has remained elegantly simple, from day one, to get involved with. Volunteering is still a phone call or a mouse click away – learn more.
Since founding Hands on Nashville, you have done incredible work at Bright Horizons, Oasis Center and now are starting a new company, Zeumo. Tell us about it.
Zeumo is an idea I’ve been carrying around in my head for years. The easiest way I can describe it is a LinkedIn for teens. We’re building a youth-centric social dashboard that helps students stay on top of everything going on in their world, both in their school and in the community. Teenagers today have abundant access online to useless information. What they need is an easy way to quickly access useful information. Zeumo is that platform. We launch in a handful of Nashville area schools in November, but I’m already getting calls from schools across the country.
When you doubt yourself/business like most entrepreneurs do at some point, where do you turn for inspiration?
The first thing I do when I doubt myself is exercise…hard. It’s a great way for me to process the voices in my head and distill what really warrants my energy and what is useless fear. I then take the “legit” concerns to a handful of mentors that I know will tell me the truth and help me find an answer and inspiration.
What is the hardest part about starting your own businesses? What would you tell someone who wants to quit their corporate job to start their own business?
I’ve always worked with rather large groups of people or teams, and I wasn’t prepared for the initial feeling of loneliness that can go with early entrepreneurship. It takes a lot of grit, stamina, and self-determination to make it through the early days. But I frequently remind myself that this was my choice and that this is my dream. The excitement of both of those realities far outweighs the fear.
My advice for anyone wanting to start their own business is to do their homework and make sure that their idea isn’t a solution in search of a problem. Are you solving a pain point for someone? Are people willing to pay for your solution to their pain point? There is a difference between a compelling mission/vision and a compelling business model. Make sure you have both before you step out on that limb.
Pick one: College or Experience?
That’s the proverbial “chicken or the egg” question. It’s both. I had zero “formal” experience when I started Hands on Nashville, but I had the informal lessons I learned about leadership, life, disappointment, and determination when I was at college.
How do you keep your focus on one business at a time, not swaying to other new ideas or ventures that often jump in the way of entrepreneurs?
That is definitely my greatest struggle. I’m fairly ADD and love to chase the next shiny new idea. The Entrepreneur Center helped me understand how to overcome this and stay focused on one value proposition. I hated the phrase “minimally viable product” when I first started. Now I realize just how important the concept is.
Why is Nashville a great city to do business? If you could change something about Nashville to make it a better place for entrepreneurs, what would it be?
I’ve found Nashville to be a great city to do business because it’s a place where we celebrate one another’s success. There is a real “pay it forward” mentality here, especially in the entrepreneur community, which makes it relatively easy for new entrepreneurs to find support and coaching. On the flip side, we have a pretty conservative community of investors, and it can be very hard to access capital if you don’t have an established network of relationships in place.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to maintain a work/life balance?
Make sure you preserve a little time for friendship (you’ll need it), for exercise (to keep you sane), and for time away from a computer screen. 6am at Radnor Lake has been my daily church for the past year.
What’s your favorite area in Nashville and what restaurant/shop/bar is your favorite?
I love the Richland/West End area and hope I can move back there one day. Mature trees + sidewalks is a beautiful combination in my book. There really are too many restaurants and shops to name. I could spend a fortune at Billy Reid and I could eat almost every weeknight meal at Table 3. Sunday brunch after church at Café Margot is another favorite spot.
What’s one book, blog or magazine you are reading right now?
I’m addicted to FlipBoard because it lets me scan multiple publications and interests in a very visual way. You can pretty much find me on it every morning around 5am.
What’s one thing you want people to know about you as a person aside from your business?
I’d love to run for public office one day.